Scientists frustrated by knowledge block

Photo of Dr TJ Higgins

Two of Australia"s crop scientists with international reputations for their work with gene technologies, Dr Jim Peacock and Dr T.J. Higgins, have been leading efforts to promote the role of gene technologies in crop development. They have also come out strongly against the anti-GM campaign and the arguments put forward in support of state governments that have banned the growing of transgenic crops. Brad Collis talks to Dr Higgins (this page) and Dr Peacock (page 18)

[Photo (left) by Brad Collis: " The real value of GM tools is the crucial knowledge they are opening up" Dr T.J. Higgins]

Graingrowers are being urged to heed the lessons of the cotton industry in its use of gene technologies. Dr T.J. Higgins, deputy chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, says the cotton industry now has 10 years of experience with genetically modified crops and should be used as a model.

Dr Higgins, an internationally recognised authority on crop biotechnologies, says the incorporation of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene as a natural insecticide in the cotton plant broke that industry"s heavy reliance on chemical pesticides, and has gradually moved it from being a social pariah to a leader in environmental management systems and land stewardship.

Along the way, production costs have fallen and profitability has climbed.

"Gene technologies provide a biological answer that has reduced chemical use by over 70 per cent and provided a simple system for the control of the heliothis pest," says Dr Higgins. "Most cotton growers are now heading in the direction of farming more along the lines of organic principles - an encouraging perspective at a time when urban understanding of agriculture is poor."

Dr Higgins says that over the past seven years the profit margin for GM cotton over non-GM cotton has averaged $377 a hectare. (Ceilings were initially set on how much GM cotton could be planted to slow the development of insect resistance.)

Last year, with the new two-gene variety, Bollgard II®, about 80 per cent of cotton grown in Australia was GM cotton. This year it will be more than 90 per cent. Bollgard II® contains two bacterial genes that make proteins deadly to the heliothis caterpillar. This will further decrease the likelihood of insect resistance developing.

Dr Higgins predicts that the Australian grains industry will need to adopt new technologies to differentiate its products from cheaper competitors, and gene technology is one technology that will help it run internationally competitive, and environmentally sustainable, businesses.

He says gene technologies will probably be needed to capitalise on the growing community awareness of the direct health properties of grains, and the links being made by medical science between grains and their potential to reduce heart disease and diabetes.

"The rest of the world is starting to use biotechnology to develop better functional foods from grains. Australia needs to be there, and soon, because being second into a market is a problem."

Dr Higgins says this field of technology will usher in a new generation of crop plants producing modified oils, starches and proteins for better health.

"And these won"t all be GM plants. In most instances, genetic engineering will simply remain a breeders" tool for accessing sets of genes from progenitor lines. It"s a tool for locating the mutations needed in particular crosses.

"You end up with a plant that"s the same as a GM plant - but it"s not a GM plant.

"Another important point being overlooked in the debate is that yes, we can do more and more with conventional breeding techniques, but that is partly because of the knowledge being opened up by technologies such as genetic modification and marker assisted breeding. Even if most crops in the field are non-GM, we need the GM tools to start the new lines; to harness the genes, for example, from Central Asia that could protect our grain crops from frost. A real value of GM tools is the knowledge they are opening up on how plants develop and function."

Dr Higgins travels widely to talk to growers about crop biotechnologies, including GM: "Most growers don"t want to end up as cottage gardeners, which is where the anti GM position will put them," he says.

"While people have a right to farm the way they want, I challenge that any one group has a right to impose its views on a whole industry."

Dr Higgins says that when he talks to farmers, few are worried anymore about the technology itself: "Their main concern is to make sure markets are not put at risk and that liability issues are resolved. These, of course, are not areas that scientists can manage."

However, the former head of CSIRO Plant Industry, Dr Jim Peacock, says the cotton industry provides useful lessons on this as well. There were concerns in Japan about cottonseed from GM crops being used in livestock supplements and in cottonseed oil. Extensive health and safety trials were undertaken in Japan to allow buyers and consumers to satisfy themselves that the product was safe - and the cotton industry paid for this testing.

"I would suggest the canola industry needs to do what the cotton industry did - prepare the market first so there is no resistance to transgenic canola when it arrives," he says. "This foresight saved the cotton industry - and its communities."

For more information: Dr T.J. Higgins, 02 6246 4911